Taking back control of our lives

By Sada Reddi

Once we realize both the consequences of wastefulness caused by consumption and how we have been reduced to slavery by advertisements – and that with our own consent -, the minimum we can do is help to save the planet and seek our liberation

One morning, a lorry drove up in the schoolyard of a primary school, and shortly afterwards, pupils were asked to line up. Led by the teacher they queued up near the lorry, and each pupil was given a carton cup of Coca Cola and a pink blotting paper depicting a fat and smiling Father Christmas in his red suit. This happened in the 1950s, and most likely the scene was repeated in many other primary schools in the island. That was probably the first brush of schoolchildren with advertising and the marketing by business houses. A similar strategy was adopted for another beverage – Ovaltine — which later became quite popular with many families.

Today we need not step out of the house to come across a billboard prominently placed on the motorway inviting commuters to buy this or that product. We are all connected to the world of material things and services through the internet and which we are constantly led to believe are what we need to acquire for our well-being. Unfortunately consumption, though necessary, has also many nefarious consequences for our citizens and society. Sometimes we have to step back and ponder whether we are not being led like lambs to the slaughter house and that there is a need to grapple with some of the problems and issues that threaten our existence.

While many are rightly concerned with what they consider urgent issues facing the economy and indeed there are many — increasing indebtedness of the country, the decline of the manufacturing sector, the drain on national wealth as result of rising imports — increasing consumption in our society does not receive the same attention. Yet it has also lots of negative consequences on many households. From an economic point of view, there should be nothing wrong with consumption. It is important to lubricate the economy, to boost production of local goods and services, but ironically this also boosts imports because we produce so little. Government too provides full support to a culture of consumption by lowering savings interest rate (which explains why our savings rate is too low) and a host of other measures to boost government revenues.

On the other hand, one cannot ignore the fact that though credit for household consumption may be falling, there are already many people who cannot service their loans. Others are taken to court for failing to pay up for the gadgets they have bought on hire purchase. There are equally an increasing number of cases of robbery in supermarkets and on the streets for money, jewellery or smart phones. There are even cases of prostitution among the very young for the purchase of mobile phones or maybe even drugs. A rough estimate indicates that the number of cases of Sales by Levy may be 500 to 600 annually. To avoid such distress, many prefer to sell their houses themselves hoping to get a fairer price.

Admittedly many of these cases of people losing their houses may be due to a number of factors other than their style of consumption. Like, for example, loss of employment or the death of the family’s sole breadwinner, or simply because the head of the family has lost the ability to work due to an accident or illness. Less known are the many cases when after paying their NHDC flat mortgages for years, the householder suddenly finds himself for these reasons unable to continue to pay his mortgage and is compelled to sell his flat much below market prices to pay up his debt to the NHDC. He is finally left with a paltry sum and his hope of acquiring a house remains as elusive as ever.

But in other cases of indebtedness, the householder’s style of consumption may result in a number of problems as a result of expenses on unnecessary gadgets like the latest television set, items of clothing, handbags, lavish marriages, birthdays, parties and other ceremonies, house renovations…

It may not be wrong from a certain point of view to buy things or to spend money to decorate one’s home. Acquiring material things has been a feature of human existence in all societies throughout the ages and people invest numerous meanings in the objects they acquire or in their ways of living – generally to improve their well-being. The many factors behind such behaviour include social mobility, class, status, personal gratification, a sense of identity, keeping up with one’s neighbour and so on. Even when people opt for a minimalist way of life, they too are making a social or a political statement. What is wrong is when one runs into debt or lives beyond one’s means to satisfy such cravings.

In other societies, governments take up the responsibility to protect people in various ways. There are institutions to provide advice and counselling to those who run the risks of falling into a debt trap. There are also adequate measures to protect the houses of the owners. There are funds and other strategies to help consumers and rehabilitate the unwary.

In the past, schools, families and religious bodies would have played a part in inculcating a degree of self-restraint in the lives of citizens. Today these institutions are becoming largely irrelevant in the lives of many citizens and in some cases they may even contribute to the indebtedness of families. Nor can we expect them to reinvent themselves and play a meaningful role in our society. Such responsibility is best left to new social groups and citizens’ organizations.

There is no panacea to the problems of consumption in any society. Whatever style of consumption we adopt, even if it does not bring in its wake a host of the problems that we have mentioned above, there are two major consequences which must be kept in mind and it is our responsibility to organize so as to mitigate them as far as possible.

First, we must realize that excessive consumption is not sustainable in the long run and it will destroy our planet and this has already started. In the US, the use of luxury toilet paper is destroying Canadian forests. Second, it is important that we as citizens take control of our lives for we cannot grow without some self-restraint on our impulses and our ability to scrutinize our actions.

In his book ‘The Affluent Society’ and later in his Reith lectures published in the BBC’s The Listener 1966, John Kenneth Galbraith argued that in the new industrial economy and as a result of technology and advertising we buy up things that we do not need because it is advertisement and marketing which create in us the illusion that we desire such things. Since then, there has been a lot of debate on our dependence on advertisements and how they shape our lives. Today everybody acknowledges our dependence on technology and advertisements to acquire things.

Once we realize both the consequences of wastefulness caused by consumption and how we have been reduced to slavery by advertisements – and that with our own consent -, the minimum we can do is help to save the planet and seek our liberation. These should also be the goals of our citizens’ organizations.

* Published in print edition on 8 March 2019

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